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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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May 22, 2008 4:50 PM

Consolidation investigation

Posted by Ryan Blethen

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. has asked the Government Accountability Office to study media consolidation. The GAO should take up Dorgan's request. A number consumer groups have studied the effects of media consolidation. All the studies have shown that communities are hurt when consolidation shrinks the number of independent voices. It would be hard to imagine the GAO finding any differently.

Dorgan was joined in his request by Sens. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. The senators want the GAO to examine several issues such as:

*Sources of programming on television, radio, and subscription video services and how these sources have changed in the past decade.

* Factors contributing to the current distribution of programming on television, radio, and subscription video services.

*The impact that consolidation has had on independently produced programming.

*To what extent the Internet has provided an outlet for independent programming and to what extent have the traditional media companies come to dominate the most popular Internet sites.

* Changes to existing laws and regulations that industry experts and participants think are necessary.

These are all worthy of the GAO's attention. I would suggest that there is another part of the press the GAO should study. Newspapers. The newspaper industry has suffered because of consolidation. Too many newspapers are in the ownership of large chains. Many of these chains are public companies or private but heavily leveraged. This public/leveraged ownership model has not been kind to journalism. In an effort to meet the bottom line of Wall Street many papers have cut deep into the newsgathering operation. This has left journalists frustrated and readers with substandard newspapers.

Much of the government's attention rightly falls on broadcast outlets because of the Federal Communications Commission's oversight of that sector of the media.

As consolidation gutted broadcast newsrooms, especially in radio, more and more of what is transmitted originates from newspapers. This makes sense considering newspapers have the largest newsrooms of any type of news outlet.

It is time lawmakers did something to encourage and promote independent ownership models for newspapers. I am not sure what that would look like. I envision some kind of taxing structure and incentives that promote independent ownership in whatever form that might be. Maybe even a cap on the number of newspaper that can be owned.

A GAO study showing how media consolidation has hurt broadcast is a good first step. The office should follow-up with a newspaper study.

Curious to know what readers think about government incentives for independent newspaper ownership? Good idea? Bad idea? Any suggestions?

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